“...the time is at hand”
No Book of scripture has been so marred and abused as the Revelation of John the Divine (except, possibly, for Corinthians). There are many conflicting hypotheses concerning this Book, with many more sub-ideas. As we look at this Book, we will, as always, read it as it is written. Because of the very words used, this will be a combination of literal and figurative. The ideas of men will be ignored as far as possible, so that the text can give its own account. This is not, then, meant to reinforce any particular theology, denomination, or personalized theory, but is meant to look at what the text actually tells us. If I am unsure, I will say so.
As a believer I am not a follower of any of the millennial theories. I come to this Book as a Christian, not with a sectarian prejudice, whether Reformed or any other kind. I would point out that some of the greatest theological minds of the centuries have battled with this Book... so, as one whose stature is that of a midget by comparison, my views are very much my own, unless I state categorically that I refer to another interpretation.
The small church of which I am pastor requested that I deal with this Book systematically. This I now do with humility, for I know just how hard it is to examine Revelation. Yet, how hard is it, really, when John says that those who read it are blessed, especially if they ‘keep those things which are written therein’? With the help of the Holy Spirit we shall soon discover for ourselves whether or not we will be blessed, or held back by foibles and personalized ideas based on petty hypotheses!
This is a revelation given to the disciple/apostle, John, by God. Some refer to him as ‘John of Patmos’ and others use the same name to describe someone who was not the apostle. It is my view that this John is the apostle. He was to pass the contents of the vision on to the seven churches, and they would have passed it on to all others, as was the custom in those days, when, unlike today, there truly was a ‘Christian community’. The revelation came through a vision, a direct communication from God to John, and anything he saw was actual – divine manifestation given to an human mind and eyes. It was not like a flawed human dream, but an enactment before John’s very eyes.
Like the other New Testament books, this book was written in koine Greek. The title of the book means ‘unveiling’ or revealing something not previously known. John wrote the book whilst on the Greek island of Patmos, which is quite far up in the Aegean Sea, off what is now the west coast of Turkey.
As part of his vision, John was instructed, by an audible voice, to record what he was being told and what he saw. The date of writing was possibly between 70 AD (the fall of Jerusalem) and 95 AD, according to some theologians. In reality, we do not really know, but it appears to be very late in John’s life. He did not himself give a title to the book and so several have been used over the centuries, such as ‘The Book of the Revelation of Saint John the Divine’’, ‘Revelation’, or ‘The Apocalypse’. Any symbolism has been given by God Himself, and all parts are divine.
The book is both prophetic/future, and contemporary. Thus, the letters for the seven churches are for the actual churches at the time. Any application to later churches is secondary to the main purpose of advising the churches that then existed in Asia, to listen to the Lord. As I have already said, I will interpret the texts as they are written, with no attempt to make them futurist, or current, or past. And please, do not make the mistake of thinking the book is ‘just an allegory’!
Justin Martyr (about 100-165 AD) was taught by John, and appears to agree that John was the author of The Revelation. Theologians of a slightly later time also accept this to be the case. The Eastern (Romanised) church rejected the Book as canon. Some say John was exiled under Domitian; others that he was exiled under Nero. It was not until the heretical textual critics arrived in the 19th century that doubts were cast on John the apostle as the writer of the book. Because these critics are poor interpreters of scripture due to their unbelief, we can disregard their views. To put it another way – we may only accept as valid what is written by John. Everything else is just guesswork.
In essence, this book stands alone, owing nothing to any other literature or influence. It gives the direct word of God to readers, without the meddling found in denominational or theoretical works. I will not attempt to suggest a structure to the book, because it is unique. As I said earlier, we must read this book as it is written, whether or not it agrees with our finite thinking and ideas. We must, then, cast aside everything we have previously been taught about the book, and allow God to speak for Himself.
The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave unto him, to shew unto his servants things which must shortly come to pass; and he sent and signified it by his angel unto his servant John:
Who bare record of the word of God, and of the testimony of Jesus Christ, and of all things that he saw.
Blessed is he that readeth, and they that hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written therein: for the time is at hand.
The book is information founded on Jesus Christ, given by the Trinity to John. It is called ‘The Revelation’, apokalypsis, because it gave a truth not known before. Even though God gave the information, He did not make it 100% clear, but still kept some of it blurred to our minds. And when we see what so many groups and individuals make of the book, I can understand why! Those who claim it is ‘easy’ are frauds.
‘God’ gave the book to John via “his angel”. In this text ‘God’ is theos, which is used here to speak of the entire Godhead rather than of any specific Person within the Godhead. “His angel” gave John the Revelation, so that he could then pass it on to “his servants” (Jesus’ servants). Why? To show them what was about to happen. The angel is not defined as anyone in particular in the text. The time scale (“shortly”) has reference to something that was to happen swiftly, tachinos. Does this necessarily mean, for our age, that everything has already occurred? Not really, though the first few chapters do appear to have taken place because of their application to churches at the time.
John documented what the angel said, from Jesus’s words, and from what he actually saw in the vision. We are told that whoever reads or hears the revelation will be blessed – made happy by knowing what God and His nature depicts… IF they obey what is written. “For the time is at hand”.
What we have is a lengthy prophecy, a prediction of things that have yet to come about, and God’s plan. The time is at hand, so what is said applies to people within a limited period; indeed, the period is short, eggys – very near. We will see as we go through the book which parts are very near and which (if any) are still yet to come. Bear in mind that what is ‘shortly’ in God’s eyes can be a long-time in ours! It is essential to understand that the whole book was written for the seven churches in particular… the churches contemporary with John.
John to the seven churches which are in Asia: Grace be unto you, and peace, from him which is, and which was, and which is to come; and from the seven Spirits which are before his throne;
And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood,
And hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
Behold, he cometh with clouds; and every eye shall see him, and they also which pierced him: and all kindreds of the earth shall wail because of him. Even so, Amen.
John opens the prophecy with words for the “seven churches which are in Asia”. This is a direct reference to actual churches that existed at the time of John. Though it can also speak to others of later times in an indirect sense, the message is for the churches and their pastors who knew John – they were contemporaneous. Thus, the words are initially not for the far future, nor are they symbolic for something else. (However, in God’s eyes how distant is ‘far’??).
It is no surprise that John is to speak to the Asian (‘orient’) churches: they correspond roughly to those in the area now known as Turkey, where he was at the time. (Some think he may have been a bishop of them all. But, this does not tally with the meaning of ‘bishop’ which applies to a local pastor. It is far more likely that he was a valued and loved apostle kept in high regard as a peripatetic teacher of all churches). It seems at the time that there were seven of them. Probably this means seven foundational churches with other, satellite, churches sent out from them.
John opens, as was usual, with a greeting and God’s peace upon them. He describes God as the self-existent One, the “I AM”, which includes the idea of eternity. Another way of putting it is ‘The Only One’, as the article, ho, implies. You will note that though some being spoken to will be taken to task, they still have God’s blessing upon them.
John thus ends greetings from the Lord God (theos as trinity), and also from the “seven spirits which are before his throne”. Interestingly, the word ‘seven’, hepta, used in this text is mostly found in the Revelation, but has its root in the Hebrew, sheba’. It describes a state of completeness, but what does it mean here? There are seven ‘spirits’, pneuma, and pneuma can have one of many meanings.
The construction of the statement implies that this is the number of perfection found in the Holy Spirit Himself. This specifically has the metaphorical meaning of God Himself, and so does not refer to seven individual spirits. This appears to be reinforced by use of the capital ‘S’ for Spirits. Hence the Trinity is mentioned in order – first the Father, then the Spirit, then the Son. Why say ‘seven’? Possibly, because the Holy Spirit had something to say to the seven churches and so His Person was sent to each one with a different message, and ‘seven’ signifies Himself and completeness.
Jesus Christ is called “the faithful witness”, and so He is, for He represented the Father fully and completely. He is also the “first begotten” of the dead – the first to arise from the dead in His own power as a prelude to the resurrection of all believers. He is the prince of the kings, or, King of kings. Though Almighty God and King of kings He nevertheless loved those of us who are His, each one known by name. Every person who is saved through His blood is known personally to Jesus as Lord and Saviour, for we are each of us elected and predestinated to salvation.
Verse 6 tells us clearly that the old priesthood was demolished. Instead, everyone who is saved is himself a priest, able to present himself personally to the Lord. We are also called ‘kings’, meaning a royal priesthood. In this verse ‘God’ must refer to Jesus, as “his Father” implies, which makes sense when we read what follows: “to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever”. Amen – so be it, or, may it be fulfilled. This is a term originally from the synagogues, when the people responded to a prayer by adopting what was said as their own belief and decision, by saying ‘amen’.
John then switches attention from Who Christ is, to what He will do in the far future: “he cometh with clouds”; the Second Coming, when every person on earth will see Him, even those who murdered Him. All who are unsaved, including arrogant atheists, at that momentous time, will cry out in fear. Assuredly, it will be so!
This mixing of present (message to the seven churches) and the far future is not unexpected in the book, for it carries on the Hebraic tradition of writing, but for a Christian readership. It is this mixture that readers must be aware of, for otherwise they will apply only one approach to interpretation.
I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, saith the Lord, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty.
I John, who also am your brother, and companion in tribulation, and in the kingdom and patience of Jesus Christ, was in the isle that is called Patmos, for the word of God, and for the testimony of Jesus Christ.
I was in the Spirit on the Lord's day, and heard behind me a great voice, as of a trumpet,
Saying, I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last: and, What thou seest, write in a book, and send it unto the seven churches which are in Asia; unto Ephesus, and unto Smyrna, and unto Pergamos, and unto Thyatira, and unto Sardis, and unto Philadelphia, and unto Laodicea.
John then proclaims a statement by Jesus Christ, before he begins the content of the message he was to give to the seven churches (and, by extension, to all believers in all times). “I am Alpha and Omega”. “I am” has two significances: one is that Jesus is the “I AM” of the Old Testament; the other is that He is saying He is the ever-existing One, Who is now present with John and the churches everywhere. It therefore repeats the earlier statement: “from him which is, and which was, and which is to come”.
Jesus is the Alpha, the beginning and the end. Use of the term is interesting because it is an indeclinable noun; that is, it cannot be reduced to other forms but remains alone. Also, Alpha begins the process that ends in Omega. Thus, Christ is everything in between creation and the last day, the embodiment of everything in God’s mind.
Omega, too, is indeclinable, reinforcing the passage above; nothing and no-one continues from, or outside, Christ, or progresses beyond what the Lord has declared or decided. Everything ever known or will be known is embraced by whatever God‘s will decided in eternity. And this is what Jesus declared to John, as ‘Lord’, in this text kyrios, a statement of complete mastery over all things. Again, the earlier statement is reinforced with “which is, which was, and which is to come… the Almighty”. This confirms that Jesus IS the Almighty God, the pantoktrator, ruler of all, a title given only to God, as the omnipotent One.
John now switches to an introduction to himself as spiritual brother of the Christians in Asia (verse 9). He has shared in the troubles they have endured since the great diaspora (which affected Christians as well as Jews). He is also their brother “in the kingdom” – the state of salvation through and in Christ, being steadfast, just like them.
Having said that, he tells them the circumstances of receiving the prophecy: he was on the small island of Patmos (‘my killing’) in the Aegean Sea, not far from what is now the western coast of Turkey. He says he was there to evangelise and to teach God’s word. Very often, God will break into our lives, when we are busy doing His work, and will give us another task to perform. This is how dynamic a true relationship with God is! Never think that the ministry you now have is your only one, or that God will not change it as He wishes. It is always up to God.
After giving the reason for being on Patmos, John relates how he received the prophecy. He was “in the Spirit on the Lord’s day”. The word “in” is a primary preposition that gives a fixed position – such as place, time, state, etc. It also denotes instrumentality: that is, being in the Spirit, he was, then, exactly where he ought to have been, as decided by the Holy Spirit, and made ready to receive God’s message.
What is meant by “in the Spirit” is open to discussion, but at the least it means he was in a proper frame of mind, being concentrated on the things of God. Was this a rapturous frame of mind? Maybe, but we cannot truly tell because of lack of information. We only know that John was godly in mind and heart, probably because it was the Lord’s day, Sunday, when Christians dwell on Him anyway. It was, though, far more than mere thoughts; God prepared John in his spirit to hear and see a manifestation that had its root in eternity and Heaven. Many, mainly charismatics, claim to be in this state, but they are liars! Such is a position of immense favour, not a commonplace activity!
John was alerted to the presence of God by the voice “as of a trumpet”, or as loud and clear as a trumpet sound. Matthew Henry thinks the voice was preceded by a trumpet, but I do not get that idea from the text.
The voice, that of Jesus Christ, said: “I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last” and what John was about to see and hear he had to write in a book, without interpretation and without personalised notions. When he finished the book, he was to deliver its contents to the seven churches in Asia, all named: Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamos, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia and Laodicea. What this does is to fix the recipients specifically in a particular location at a particular time. That the message may also apply to later Christians in later times is secondary and not the primary purpose, no matter what modern theologians wish us to think. Jesus Himself tells us who the recipients are!
Note: Ephesus (‘permitted’), chief city of the Roman territory of Iona, between Miletus and Smyrna; close to modern Selcuk, Turkey. It was one of the largest Mediterranean cities, with quarter of a million inhabitants, who mainly worshipped Artemis. Smyrna (‘myrrh’), one of Iona’s prominent cities, 40 miles north of Ephesus, and strategic to trade and military use. Pergamos (‘height/elevation’): famed for inventing parchment, a major city with a massive royal library, and in the Lanarca district of Cyprus, now controlled by Turkey. Thyatira (‘odour of affliction’), between Sardis and Pergamos on the river Lycus; made its living by dying in purple. This is the current Turkish city of Akhisar, south of Istanbul and fifty miles inland. Sardis (‘red ones’): a wealthy, luxurious, important city, with military strength, chief city of Lydia and now known as Sart. Philadelphia (‘brotherly love’): a Lydian city below the eastern slopes of mount Tmolus/Bozdag, and a Roman city, known for its sultanas. This is the medieval name for the city, which was known as Alasehir. Laodicea (‘justice of the people’), was a city of Phrygia also on the river Lycus, close to Colosse, a major Christian church. Its earlier name was Diospolis and Rhoas.
And I turned to see the voice that spake with me. And being turned, I saw seven golden candlesticks;
And in the midst of the seven candlesticks one like unto the Son of man, clothed with a garment down to the foot, and girt about the paps with a golden girdle.
His head and his hairs were white like wool, as white as snow; and his eyes were as a flame of fire;
And his feet like unto fine brass, as if they burned in a furnace; and his voice as the sound of many waters.
And he had in his right hand seven stars: and out of his mouth went a sharp twoedged sword: and his countenance was as the sun shineth in his strength.
When John heard the voice he turned and was faced with seven singular golden candlesticks. In the middle of the candlesticks was One resembling Jesus, the Son of Man, wearing long clothing to the feet, and a golden belt around His chest.
Obviously, only One can ‘resemble’ Jesus – and that is… Jesus! The girdle or belt is used metaphorically for truth itself, and Jesus IS truth. The girdle covered the nipples, so was narrow, and made of gold. It had the added job of holding up the garment worn by Jesus.
Jesus’ hair was like pure white wool (purity), and his eyes were as bright as flames of fire (piercing, a word used to describe divine judgment that searches out evil wherever it is found). We are left with no doubt that Who John saw was Almighty God.
Jesus’ feet were “like unto fine brass”. This refers to metal like gold or even more precious, and it shone with brilliance (“as if they burned in a furnace”); or, could have been ultra-shining copper or bronze, but the final meaning is unsure. As Jesus spoke His voice sounded like “many waters”, such as a roaring waterfall of a huge river. (The word can also be used to speak of all the languages of all the nations).
In His right hand were seven stars: these represented the angels given special charge of the seven churches, they being sub-stars of the Morning Star, the Lord Jesus Christ. In this way the angels protecting the churches were representative of the Lord Who governed them, and thus were themselves described as ‘stars’.
A sharp two-edged sword came out of Jesus’ mouth. The sharpness indicated the swiftness of Jesus to act and the sword was two-edged, or ‘two mouthed’, branching out like two rivers; it speaks of Jesus’ power to separate soul from spirit. And Jesus’ face shone like the sun at its height. The vision, then, portrayed Jesus in His heavenly power and glory! John seems to be the only apostle to have witnessed the true glory of Jesus, whilst still on this earth.
And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:
I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death.
Write the things which thou hast seen, and the things which are, and the things which shall be hereafter;
The mystery of the seven stars which thou sawest in my right hand, and the seven golden candlesticks. The seven stars are the angels of the seven churches: and the seven candlesticks which thou sawest are the seven churches.
“When I saw him”. I would repeat that this was a vision from God, and what John saw he saw in reality. The word ‘saw’, eido, can be used figuratively or literally. I would suggest that the meaning here is literal, because John was looking at a vision with both his eyes and mind. Also, the construction of the sentence implies actual sight of an actual object. Thus, John saw Jesus and then fell prostrate at His feet. These are terms of actuality.
But, when it comes to his fall to the ground, figurative language is used, “as dead” and not “dead”, where the adverb, “as”, is used to mean ‘like’, or ‘as it were’: he fell as if dead, and was not actually dead, such was the trauma of being face to face with God. The word is used of laying prostrate, pipto, before one’s Lord. In this position he was unable to do anything but listen and see.
Jesus was known to John, who was His much-loved disciple when He was on earth. It is fitting, then, that Jesus put a hand on John to reassure him. The right hand is used to show authority and fellowship. “Fear not”, shows us that John fell to the floor in great fear (phobeo). Jesus was indeed known to him on earth, but now He appeared to John as God, though with a recognizable humanized (but glorified) body.
Jesus again told him He was “the first and the last”, the protos and the eschatos. Similar to Alpha, protos means to be first in honour, rank, and place, and ‘before’ all else. That is, He is God. Eschatos means that Jesus was also the last in all things, including rank, worth, etc., to be the uttermost. Taken together, both words refer to Jesus’ divine status as the Eternal One.
Jesus further reassures John, that He is the same Person who John knew on earth: saying He now lives but was formerly dead, following His crucifixion. Now, he is alive for evermore (so be it). The word “forever” can mean forever from a point in time, or for a period of time. But, Jesus as God is outside time, and the meaning of aion in this text therefore means ‘eternity’, with no beginning and no end.
The final part of Jesus’ declaration to John is sufficient to ruin the belief by Catholics that Peter held the keys to heaven and death, etc. “and have the keys of hell and of death”. Jesus has the keys, not Peter! Jesus is the keeper and only He has power over hell and death, who enters hell and who enters Heaven. His power is absolute over everything in creation and outside it, including the souls of men.
In this statement Jesus uses the word for ‘hell’ best known to John – hades or Orcus, which, though generally meaning the realm of the dead, is often used in the New Testament of the abode of the wicked. Jesus is also Lord of death, thanatos, which has one of several implications: it can refer to the misery known by the unsaved, or just the separation of soul from body. (Anyone who witnesses the moment of death in many people can testify to this mysterious separation, even if they do not believe in God). Jesus was, then, telling John that He holds the future state of men in His hands, whether to Heaven or to hell.
Jesus then confirms the meanings of the symbols He held in His right hand, the hand of ultimate power and authority: the stars are the angels who protect and guide the seven churches, on behalf of the Holy Spirit, and the candlesticks represent the seven churches. This implies strongly that each local church, loyal to God, has an angel of protection and guidance, who communes with the Lord concerning the church and its people. If this is the case, they do not have autonomy, but only act as God requires, doing nothing of their own volition. For this reason, we should be thankful to the Lord that our faithful churches are not alone on this world, but are watched over by angels and the Holy Spirit Himself, and are protected.
And so John sees and hears the preamble to the whole prophecy: Jesus telling him Who He is in relation to John and the churches, and that He has total power over everything earthly and divine. This is then followed by the actual warnings and commendations to the seven churches.
The letter was written, by God’s command, to the seven churches in Asia.
The seven candlesticks represent the seven churches being written to.
The seven stars are the angels who guide and protect the seven churches.
Jesus Christ - not Peter - holds the keys to hell and death.
Note: Concerning the keys and Peter. When Jesus said He gave the keys of the kingdom of heaven to Peter, He was not saying that Peter had control over them, but only that he was responsible to use their representation. The Greek structure says that whatever Peter binds or looses is already bound and loosed in Heaven. Thus, Peter can only do what has already been determined in Heaven by Jesus. Therefore, Jesus holds the keys, and Peter uses them. In the same way every Christian has the authority to declare what God says, as truth and fact, because each has the same authority as that given to Peter. The ‘rock’ on which the Church is built is Jesus, not Peter. Again, this is the structure of the Greek and the whole meaning of the ‘Rock’, Who, throughout scripture, is defined as God. See study on Matthew 16 for more details.
Location of the Seven Churches of The Revelation of John.
Reproduced with permision (15 October 2013) - Courtesy of The Bible Study Web Site at BibleStudy.org.
For grid references and further details go to: http://www.biblestudy.org/maps/the-seven-churches-of-revelation-map.html"
© November 2001
Revised May 2013